Sex infections up 12 percent in Rock County
If you go
What: Personal Responsibility Education Project to teach Beloit teens about safer sex
When: The next session is noon to 2 p.m. Tuesdays starting June 12.
Where: Community Action, 20 Eclipse Center, 600 Henry Ave., Beloit.
To sign up: Call Marc Perry at (608) 755-2470 Ext. 2279. Minors need parental permission.
For more information
To learn more about sexually transmitted infections, to get help or to learn about the Rock County Health Department's rapid testing for HIV and HPV vaccines, contact the department at (608) 757-5440 or (608) 364-2010.
JANESVILLE Another increase in sexually transmitted infections last year didn't surprise Rock County health officials, they said.
Cases rose 12 percent in 2011 following a 23 percent increase in 2010.
Until an infection cycle is broken, it will keep spreading, said Janet Zoellner, nursing director at the Rock County Health Department.
Education and prevention are key, she said.
"Any impact on that cycle of infection is going to benefit that rate. You don't do one (preventive) thing, you do all things," she said.
Nobody—from teens to the elderly—is immune once a sexually transmitted infection is introduced in a group of people.
It spreads unless preventive measures intervene, she said.
Many sexually transmitted infections are silent, with chlamydia being the most common. Sexually transmitted infections are associated with increased risk for cervical cancer, infertility and premature death.
"It really does boil down to a real lack of understanding," said Marc Perry, director of planning and development for Community Action. "The stigma we hear from youth and adults is, 'My partners are safe, that's not going to be me.' (It's) a feeling of invincibility that they're not going to contract it. We hear it especially from youth."
The health department receives the majority of its sexually transmitted infection cases from Community Action's First Choice Women's Health Clinic in Janesville and Beloit. The clinic, which also serves men, provides education and treatment on a sliding fee scale.
The health department is tackling the issue with help from a $46,664 Wisconsin Partnership Program grant. The department is hiring a part-time health educator to assemble partners and experts.
The goal is to identify strategies that are most appropriate for the community, Zoellner said. The hope is the assessment grant will be followed by an implementation grant, she said.
"We don't want to look at strategies then not do them," she said.
One message is clear: "If you're sexually active, you should get yourself tested," she said.
"If you're not having sex, you're not going to get sexually transmitted infections. That's a definite strategy," she said. "Beyond that, a condom always reduces risk but not entirely."
While the reported numbers are high, Zoellner said the actual number of cases is much higher.
Many cases are detected when a woman becomes pregnant and sexually transmitted infection tests are completed.
Females made up 68 percent of all Rock County cases last year.
"Women go to their doctors much more than men do," Zoellner said. "Obviously, those women did not get infected usually without a man involved."
The vast majority of local cases are among people in their 20s and early 30s, with about 25 percent of cases in teens through age 19.
"That's stayed fairly consistent," she said.
A lack of knowledge among youth seems to be pretty universal, but also in older adults, Perry said. People don't understand safe sex practices or have access to or knowledge of where to get condoms or emergency contraception, or how to use it, he said.
Then there's still the fear of being tested—"people don't want to know, especially HIV," he said.
All positive tests generate a report to the health department, where nurses talk to the person diagnosed and try to make contact with all of the person's partners to tell them they should get tested.
The process is anonymous—nurses do not reveal to the partners who the infected person is and won't give hints or a timeframe, Zoellner said.
The sexual behavior revealed through the reported cases has changed a lot over the years, she said.
The department recently had its first case of an infected person who used a smart phone application to have anonymous sexual relations by GPS location.
"Unfortunately, there's an app for that," she said.
The attitude toward sexually transmitted infections also appears to have changed.
"People used to be very upset when we'd call with this information. Sometimes it is upsetting, but very often it's not," she said.
Good or bad, that takes the edge off, she said. With a more casual attitude toward sex, she suspects people have more partners.
"People don't realize oral sex and anal sex can transmit STIs," she said. "Very often they'll think of that as a safe way to have sex, and they don't realize that still has risk."
Prevention class is targeting teens
Beloit teens are learning about safer sex and how to prevent teen pregnancy, HIV and sexually transmitted infections through a new class called Personal Responsibility Education Project, or PREP.
Probably the biggest surprise for educators in the first few sessions was how much kids don't know about sexually transmitted infections and safe sex practices, said Marc Perry of Community Action.
"Adults have a perception that they (teens) know a lot more," he said.
"The truth is they really don't at all," he said.
Parents of students have been supportive and appreciative because parents often don't know enough about the topics to have a conversation with their teens, he said.
PREP started this year through a grant Community Action received from the Medical College of Wisconsin.
Beloit, Milwaukee and Racine received grants because they have the highest rates in the state for teen pregnancy, teen sexually transmitted infections and HIV transmission among teens.
Thirty-five students are finishing the first eight-week class, which is held outside of school.
A second session is underway, and students are being sought for a class this summer. The class is targeted to ages 15 to 19, and especially African American and Latino teens.